Organised by Yuko Hasegawa with Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa at the MoT, “Oscar Niemeyer: The Man Who Built Brasilia” is the first major retrospective of Niemeyer in Japan.
The first and only occasion that Pritzker Architecture Prize was awarded to two individual practices was in 1988. Along with American architect Gordon Bunshaft, Oscar Niemeyer was the first South American laureate and second in Latin America after Mexican architect Luis Barragan in 1980. He was already 81 years old and until that moment the oldest architect to receive such honors.
Only German architect Frei Otto, the most recent laureate in 2015, was older than him being 90 years old. Despite Niemeyer’s late recognition with a Pritzker, his work in Brasilia much earlier created a benchmark that made other architects in the international scene turn their eyes to Latin American architecture by the end of the 50’s.
Three years after his death, we are starting to digest Niemeyer’s legacy retrospectively: a life to say the least, long, prolific, socially committed and extremely passionate. A lengthy life compels to read his works under the same historical frame of figures like Le Corbusier and Mies, but also along with current architectural practices. Much has been said about his work from the first perspective, just to mention Reyner Banham’s reading of Brazilian modernism as “the first country to create a National style of the Modern style”. From the second more contemporary stance, still there is much to be said.
Presented at the MoT (Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo), “Oscar Niemeyer: The Man Who Built Brasilia” is the first major retrospective of Niemeyer in Japan, aiming to present a comprehensive overview of the architect’s buildings and ideas to the Japanese audience. Curator of the Museum Yuko Hasegawa wisely involved in the curatorial project Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa from SANAA, whose organic curves and spatial dynamism have been influenced by the Brazilian architect.
Compact but substantial, the exhibition showcases Niemeyer’s multifaceted talents through a series of models, photos, drawings, furniture pieces and movies. In order to follow consecutively the development of the architect’s career, the material is displayed in seven rooms ordered chronologically. Nishizawa admits that arranging Niemeyer’s legacy in this order has given the chance to highlight the powerful architectural statements embedded in each of the projects since the dawn of the master’s career. Instead of showing solely realizations of the projects, the curators attempted conceptual representations of Niemeyer’s ideas into scale models. As many of the technical drawings have not been available, mainly photos, visits to the sites and few drawings have served to create the models.
The exhibition opens with a Prologue room where a photo series of young Niemeyer and a short movie introduces his core visions on architecture – seemingly simple yet strong and complex, and sometimes even contradictory. Inscription on the wall repeats his famous statement “I am not attracted by a right angle, or a straight, hard, inflexible line invented by man. I am attracted by free, sensual curve. The curve that I see in the mountains of my country, in the winding rivers, the waves of the sea, the body of the woman I love. Curves make up the universe, the curved Universe of Einstein.” Exhibited beside, “Rio” rocking chaise in dark lacquered wood and leather from 1974 is a flawless example of those powerful free sinuous forms seen in Niemeyer’s modern architecture.
Having on-board two of the youngest Pritzker Prize winners as Nishizawa and Sejima co-curating the work of one of the oldest Pritzker laureates becomes a unique opportunity to experience their vibrant resonances, particularly through the construction of scale-models, a common spatial-study practice in the work of SANAA. Hence the exhibition presents 10 models including Niemeyer’s seminal early projects that launched his career; United Nations Headquarters in New York (1948–1952), Casa das Canoas (House of the Architect) in Rio de Janeiro (1952) and buildings of Pampulha Complex commissioned in 1941 by future president of Brazil Juscelino Kubitschek, all of the projects destined to become the very first examples of genuine Brazilian modernism. Models of the University of Constantine in Algeria and Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum are also displayed in smaller scales built with simple materials, aiming to emphasize the site rather than the building themselves.
Niemeyer believed in the relevance of art in architecture. In Brasilia he designed sculptural elements which were repeated in order to create dynamic spatial arrangements. Such examples can be seen in the Cathedral of Brasilia (1958 – completed in 1970) and the colonnades of the Alvorada Palace, showcased in wood for this exhibition in scale of 1/10 and 1/2.67 respectively.
Displayed photos also constitute relevant material supporting this exhibition, with images from well known Brazilian and international photographers such as Leonardo Finotti (Br.), whose work was showcased among others in the most recent show at the MoMA about Latin American architecture (Latin America in Construction. Architecture 1955-1980). Photos of French-Brazilian Marcel Gautherot lent from the Instituto Moreira Salles Collection, Takashi Homma (Jp.) and Iwan Baan (Nl.) are also included on the show. A series of video-documentaries such as “Oscar Niemeyer: un architecte engagé dans le siècle” [An architect committed to his century] (2001) by Marc-Henri Wajnberg, also give a vivid sense of the Master’s ideas and ideals.
The climax of the exhibition happens in the Museum’s atrium, a dramatic triple-height space of approximately 500 sqm which people can see also from above. This condition brought the curators to envision a large scale (1/30) model of Ibirapuera Park in Sao Paulo. Neither too large to see details, neither too small to lose them, visitors can walk through the model and experience an intermediate scale of the project, displayed over a Google Earth image printed on a large carpet. The act reminds a great piece of music played by another great composer where SANAA’s interpretation masterfully hijacks the curves of Niemeyer and turn them into their own speech.
There is a general sense that good ideas take a lifetime to mature. Nevertheless, as Nishizawa points out, it is intriguing to discover through this exhibition that Niemeyer’s work was already at the peak since the very beginning of his career when he designed the Pampulha Complex and Brasilia. A brief exhibition for a lengthy life is a challenge, however one idea remains. Cities are built by men prior than by architects, hence it is about “A man…” in the widest understanding of his human condition immerse in a specific historical and cultural context . A man who did something, “…who built” nothing more than a city. A city that eventually had the power to transform other men.